Since 1994, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has exported its research and pediatric cancer care model to grassroots organizations and hospitals in 14 countries with limited resources.
Dr. Ching-Hon Pui of St. Jude with patient Logan Dills
(Courtesy of St. Jude)
While there are relatively high cure rates of pediatric cancer in the U.S., many countries not too far from the U.S., including Mexico and much of Central and South America, have far lower survival rates, says Dr. Raul Ribeiro, director of the International Outreach Program at St. Jude Children’s Research Center.
More than 70 percent of children with cancer worldwide do not have access to modern treatment, data from St. Jude shows. Globally, there are an estimated 160,000 newly diagnosed cases of childhood cancer each year.
“We want to help them with research and developing knowledge, but also at the same time developing a system to be able to share that knowledge and experience with colleagues in other countries,” he said. “When our founder said no child should die in the dawn of life, he didn’t only mean kids in America.”
St. Jude uses the same model overseas that the institution utilizes here in Memphis. St. Jude partners with grassroots organizations and hospitals and trains them to raise funds for pediatric cancer treatment and research as well as raising awareness in the community, Ribeiro explained.
“We also invest a lot of resources and training in supporting health care professionals in these countries,” Ribeiro said. “We do it in a way so that the model can be expanded in the country using local resources and that our partners can train other professionals for the city, state, country or region.”
St. Jude has partnerships in far-flung places like Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and the Philippines, as well as closer to home throughout Mexico, and in Central and South America.
While Ribeiro estimates less than 1 percent of St. Jude’s total operating budget goes toward the International Outreach Program, the outreach effort already has had a dramatic impact on pediatric cancer research and treatment worldwide.
In El Salvador, the five-year survival rate for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia went from 10 percent to 60 percent during the first five years of collaboration. While in Recife, Brazil, the cure rate for childhood cancers went from 29 percent to 70 percent since the city’s partnership with St. Jude began in 1994.
Dr. Raul Ribeiro
“Our main goal is to create local capacity … so that professionals in these countries can take care of their kids,” Ribeiro said. “As they develop larger operations, they can contribute to research, which is relevant for that particular region. They may have different types of tumors and different populations that tolerate chemotherapy differently than ours.”
St. Jude doesn’t directly employ doctors, researchers, nurses and other health care professionals in other countries. Instead, the pediatric cancer institution supplements salaries and provides funding for training so that the programs are self-sustaining.
“We want to see more quality treatment and support – and that’s where we invest our money,” he said.
The renowned pediatric cancer research giant also shares its treatment models and research free of charge to researchers and health care professionals around the globe.
In February, St. Jude completed a three-year effort to sequence the genomes of 700 pediatric cancer tumors in the largest project of its kind in the world. Research and data from The Pediatric Cancer Genome Project is now available globally. The project is now in its second phase.
“They put all the results in a public area so that a researcher in Singapore or anywhere in the world can get information about a particular gene and to look into a specific area to see if that gene is a factor or not,” Ribeiro said. “We publish very quickly and then make the findings public very quickly. We are funded by the public, so we return to the public very quickly – we don’t have to respond to stockholders or only generate research that has a financial return.”
Ribeiro, who originally hails from Curitiba, Brazil, says he first learned about St. Jude back in 1979 – when the cure rates of leukemia were very low – especially in Brazil. Several years later, he found himself completing a fellowship at St. Jude in pediatric oncology – and eventually decided to stay on.
“My work is now my passion and the mission of St. Jude has become my personal mission,” he said. “Many of the important ideas that have been developed here would never have been developed if we had to rely on other funding models.”